New wave rock musician and producer Ric Ocasek passed away on Sept. 15, 2019, in his home in New York City, at the age of 75.
Although it’s been eight years since Ocasek has released music, the news of his passing should still be profoundly felt and is a good reminder of the importance he has in the progression of rock music. Ocasek’s iconic musical work, not only as the frontman of the Cars, but as a producer, remains vital to this day, in the records he penned with Cars bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr, and in the influence that they had on rock bands to come.
Ocasek wrote and recorded six albums with the Cars in their original incarnation, and one sans the late Benjamin Orr, all of which showcased the magic of his straightforward songwriting that fits like a glove over the poppy instrumentation of his bandmates. There must be a Cars album for any rock or pop music listener because their desire to stay on the cutting edge of music technology gives their discography a progressive, evolving liveliness that marches forward from album to album. Every release from their self-titled record to their 2011 reunion Move Like This is filled with evidence of this penchant for soundscape innovation, but it’s Ocasek’s acerbic lyricism and smirking tone that defines who the Cars are.
In any given song, the Cars burst onto a track with punchy rhythm guitars, soaring lead lines and swinging vocals. Cars was not unlike many bands from this era of rock and roll, but when you hear a twirling, woodwind-esque synth or a syncopated drum fill, you begin to understand the breath of fresh air that they brought to pop radio in the 1980s. But the Cars were not among the murky album-oriented rock that dominated the progressive scene of the time. The Cars were the sound of summer, the soundtrack to a night on the town: at once something largely new and entirely accessible. At the helm of this was Ocasek, bringing his vocals soaked in attitude and youth, matched by penmanship that defined those values. Yes, they were something different, but they never felt like something unfamiliar. That’s why a teenager in 2019 can listen to “My Best Friend’s Girl” or “Just What I Needed” for the first time, and feel like they’ve been a fan of the Cars for years.
However, Ocasek’s reach extends further than his work in the Cars. The way he drew a song’s framework with layered guitar, and his humorous, off-the-wall lyricism can be seen reflected in bands such as Weezer, whose best albums — the 1994 “Blue Album” and 2001 “Green Album” — Ocasek produced. He’s also responsible for some of the work of bands like Hole and No Doubt, which have become essential listening in their respective genres. These contributions are only the most prominent of his production work, and the full list of his credits is nearly as impressive as his legendary discography.
If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that as rock and pop music progress, more and more of their frontrunning pioneers will inevitably grow older and pass on. However, we as an audience should not become so jaded as to allow Ric Ocasek to be forgotten or to become another name on a list. As we mourn his death this week, we should take into careful consideration the importance of his prolific career as a new wave frontman and take into account the foundation he set as a producer. Had Ocasek never recorded an album, rock music would be just a bit more boring and a whole lot less bold.